Lara Downes

America Again

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The title of this release comes from a 1938 poem by Langston Hughes ("Let America be America again...Let it be that great strong land of love"). The album appeared before the 2016 U.S. elections, but for some listeners its embrace of musical diversity may be quite timely. Beyond that, the album embodies the striking ability of Lara Downes to knit very unfamiliar music into recitals that seem so natural and persuasive as to be almost inevitable. Downes is one of a very few classical performers to have realized that concert music with influences from jazz and blues or spirituals makes a natural mix with pieces that actually are jazz or blues or spirituals. Thus the program includes such interesting meeting points as an Art Tatum realization of Irving Berlin's Blue Skies and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's fantasy-like Deep River. Perhaps even more fascinating is the depth to which Downes gets into the body of concert music in this vein, so long suppressed by the modernist diktat. Consider and sample Howard Hanson's little blues lullaby Slumber Song. Another recording of this rare and lovely piece appears on a Naxos Hanson collection from the year 2000 by pianist Thomas Labe. Yet how much more sense it makes here! There are other forgotten gems of this color by Aaron Copland and Roy Harris, and works drawing on other vernacular traditions (the tiny New York Waltzes by Lou Harrison are another real find). The big climax is another forgotten piece, the Fantasie Nègre of Florence Price, the first African-American woman to have a work performed by a major symphony orchestra. It's a perfect meeting between Chopin or Grieg and the melodic stuff of the African-American spiritual, and all it needed to bring it to life was the intelligent programming Downes applies here. She brings a consistent tone to widely varied music, and the sound from the Sono Luminus studio is superb. But the truly cutting-edge program is the biggest attraction here. Highly recommended.

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